Magazine Article

Power and Sanctions or Law and Life?

| Sep. 08, 2007

BEIRUT -- The United Nations is a creature of very mixed lineage, simultaneously undertaking some remarkable peace-keeping, conflict-resolution and humanitarian work, while using sanctions, threats, and boycotts to carry out the policies of powers that dominate the world scene -- especially the United States. 

Is the UN the embodiment of hope, equality and decency for all human beings? Or is it the social services agency and military clean-up subcontractor for NATO?

The new Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, revealed the best face of the organization this week when he visited Sudan. He met with the government in Khartoum and also visited refugees in the shattered Darfur region, sparking a renewed commitment to October peace talks between Khartoum and several opposition, rebel and government-linked armed groups. The talks will be mediated by the UN special envoy to Darfur, Jan Eliasson. Ban and Eliasson embody the UN's reliance on respected and talented individuals who can speak to all parties in a conflict, in order to achieve peace, security, stability and basic rights for all.

At the same time, however, the UN is also a partner in the global politics of pressure, contention and debilitating double standards. Security Council resolutions in 2004 and 2005 imposed sanctions on some parties in Sudan, and the United States seems eager to pass more through the council. The UN in Sudan, therefore, is simultaneously applying Security Council sanctions, threatening tougher new sanctions, sending in over 20,000 peace-keepers, delivering significant humanitarian assistance to refugees and displaced people, mediating peace talks, and raising the Darfur issue higher on the global agenda through actions like the secretary general's visit.

This is a fitting symbol of the UN's multiple and often contradictory roles in the world today, where it is asked to do an impossible series of tasks that respond to the needs and aspirations of very different audiences. The UN should thoroughly review its optimum role in a transforming world, because its existing contradictory policies risk damaging its credibility and efficacy for years to come.

A clear, consistent, credible UN mission is all the more important because it is achievable. A massive worldwide constituency wants the UN to play a strong role, according to two recent global public opinion polls by the BBC and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Both revealed majorities who view the UN positively and favor dramatic steps to strengthen the UN, including giving it the powers to form a standing peace-keeping force, regulate arms trading, and investigate human rights abuses.

Post-Cold War, the world witnesses a large demand for a countervailing force to American-led global dominance. Ordinary people and governments alike around the world seek a means to achieve stability and security through the consistent application of the rule of law, rather than through the whimsical militarism of American and British video-age commanders-in-chief. If ever there was massive market demand looking for supply, it is global public opinion's quest for a strong, equitable, independent United Nations.

The current status of the UN is confusing, contradictory, and probably debilitating in the long run. The UN cannot credibly advocate democracy and good governance through the work of its specialized agencies, while at the same time joining the "Quartet" and boycotting the democratically elected government headed by Hamas in Palestine. It is not logical for the UN Security Council to sanction countries and lower the living standards of their citizens, while simultaneously offering humanitarian assistance to counter the impact of its own sanctions. The UN as an institution cannot expect to be taken seriously if it applies very different standards of enforcement to its Security Council resolutions on the basis of whether compliance is demanded of, say, Israel, Syria or Iran.

Ban Ki-moon and his colleagues would appear to face a tough choice: Do they give in to the strong-armed pressure tactics of the new Big 4 -- the United States, Great Britain, Israel and Micronesia -- or do they resist the narrow ideological concerns of a few powers and instead insist on affirming the equal rights of all states and people to enjoy a common level of security, legitimacy, sovereignty and life's full promise?

The choice is not that hard, in reality. The UN as an organization must decide if it reflects only government views or the common rights and sentiments of universal public opinion, i.e., is it an instrument of power, or the enlightened embodiment of the rule of law? It must affirm if it is the universal interlocutor that speaks to all human beings for the cause of promoting peace and security, or if it is a discriminating utilitarian instrument of big power partisanship and zealotry. This must be one of the easiest choices in world history. This seems like a good year to have it reaffirmed.

Rami G. Khouri is an internationally syndicated columnist, the director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, and co-laureate of the 2006 Pax Christi International Peace Award.

Copyright ©2007 Rami G. Khouri / Agence Global

Released: 08 September 2007
Word Count: 794

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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for The Nation, Le Monde diplomatique, as well as expert commentary by Richard Bulliet, Mark Hertsgaard, Rami G. Khouri, Peter Kwong,Tom Porteous, Patrick Seale and Immanuel Wallerstein.

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For Academic Citation: Khouri, Rami. “Power and Sanctions or Law and Life?.” , September 8, 2007.